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NH voters size up Trump, DeSantis, and the rest of the Republican presidential field

A merchandise vendor outside of the DoubleTree hotel in Manchester, where former President Donald Trump gave a campaign speech April 27, 2023. Todd Bookman photo / NHPR
Todd Bookman
A merchandise vendor outside of the DoubleTree hotel in Manchester, where former President Donald Trump gave a campaign speech April, 2023. Trump returned to the state Tuesday, along with 3 other GOP candidates, to campaign.

Tuesday was a busy day in New Hampshire as far as the race for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination goes. Four candidates campaigned here, including the two candidates every poll shows topping the race in New Hampshire and nationally: Former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

NHPR’s Josh Rogers has been covering the 2024 race, attending candidate events and talking to likely Republican voters. He joined NHPR All Things Considered Host Julia Furukawa to talk about his coverage.

Below is a transcript of their conversation:

Julia Furukawa: Donald Trump spoke at a GOP luncheon in Concord Tuesday, where he drew a big crowd and campaigned in a fashion very typical of him. 

Trump: “57%, President Trump. DeSanctimonious at 19%. Somebody said, how come you only attack him? I said, because he’s in second place.” 

Josh, what are your thoughts on this? 

Josh Rogers: ‘DeSanctimonious’ is Donald Trump's sort of epithet for the Florida governor. But the idea that this is a two-man race, is one that is broadly shared with plenty of Republican voters I talk to. And it was also evident at the event where Ron DeSantis campaigned in New Hampshire today. One of the first questions lobbed at DeSantis during a town hall in Hollis asked why he, over Trump, is the right candidate to drain the swamp. In many ways, that's one that his candidacy and campaign needs to answer. Today, he took pains to stress his record is one of getting things done, and as he put it, over-fulfilling on promises. By implication, he was saying that Donald Trump's time in office and his promises to drain the swamp, build the wall — that those were promises that the former president left unfulfilled.

You said this tension was very much on the mind of voters you talked to today. How so?

Well, for a couple of reasons. Some voters I spoke with, including Jan Beaton, who's a teacher from Nashua, told me she still likes former President Trump, but worries about what she called ‘his baggage,’ and whether that would drag him down in a general election.

“The country has declined so much that I'm willing to, I guess, to vote for somebody else Republican, because I can't risk a Republican not winning,” Beaton said.

I spoke to other voters. Jay Landry was one of them. He's a semi-retired drug counselor. And he told me that he and his wife were twice proud Trump voters. But they're now looking for a candidate who can improve on what they see Donald Trump as having started.

“He did a lot of great things. We're still fans of him, but we tried that,” Landry said.

A lot of people coming out to hear from DeSantis are still fond of former President Trump, but very much open to other options. We're still months away from the primary, right?

We are. And it's worth stressing that Trump retains a very, very strong following among conservatives in the state. Some of them who showed up outside his event in Concord today — people who lacked tickets and knew they weren't going to get the chance to hear from the former president directly — they gathered in the parking lot. They were wrapped in American flags, wearing ultra MAGA t-shirts and other Trump branded clothing. They were there for the duration, regardless of whether or not they were going to get in the room. And those people are definitely going to vote for Trump, or at least that's what they say.

But outside of that core base, a lot of people who are now showing up at early campaign events for other candidates, many of them may have voted for Donald Trump twice, but they're now just beginning to tune into other candidates. And they're encountering those folks for the first time in person. So they're open minded, or so they say.

But when you bring up other candidates, they may say they're curious about [them], be it Tim Scott, the South Carolina senator; former Gov. Nikki Haley, also of South Carolina; [or] entrepreneur Vivek Rameswamy. Voters will tell you they like these candidates, but a lot of them say they're still not sure at this moment if they can win. And that's why, for a lot of these people, they really do see this race right now as really being a question of Trump or DeSantis.

In terms of substance, what are the issues on the minds of people you're talking to at this early stage?

It's not surprising that a lot of people are focusing on the economy. There's another list of clearly conservative priorities; immigration is a big one, national security is another. That's what voters will tell you they care about.

But in these rooms where candidates are really trying to woo the most passionate Republican partisans, often the lines to get the biggest response are ones that touch on social issues. Things like the participation of transgender athletes in sports, claims of purported indoctrination going on in public schools. When you listen to the candidate speak, you can hear that in a number of issues. Desantis today spoke of a general erosion of social norms. [He spoke of] everything from crime to an explosion of homelessness in liberal cities — is how he put it — to public education standards falling, all in his estimation pegged to the failure of liberal policies and liberalism. Those are things that really do animate Republican voters who are showing up now. How representative those priorities and those sentiments are of people who are actually going to participate in the New Hampshire primary months away from now is hard to know. But that's what's going on as candidates are campaigning.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.
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